Part 4 out of 6
again. I could now hear that they pronounced my name--once, twice,
three times--very softly and imploringly, as if to beg the answer
which I was still too weak to give. But I knew the voice: I knew it
was Clara's. Long after it had ceased, the whisper lingered gently on
my ear, like a lullaby that alternately soothed me to slumber, and
welcomed me to wakefulness. It seemed to be thrilling through my frame
with a tender, reviving influence--the same influence which the
sunshine had, weeks afterwards, when I enjoyed it for the first time
out of doors.
The next sound that came to me was audible in my room; audible
sometimes, close at my pillow. It was the simplest sound
imaginable--nothing but the soft rustling of a woman's dress. And yet,
I heard in it innumerable harmonies, sweet changes, and pauses minute
beyond all definition. I could only open my eyes for a minute at a
time, and even then, could not fix them steadily on anything; but I
knew that the rustling dress was Clara's; and fresh sensations seemed
to throng upon me, as I listened to the sound which told me that she
was in the room. I felt the soft summer air on my face; I enjoyed the
sweet scent of flowers, wafted on that air; and once, when my door was
left open for a moment, the twittering of birds in the aviary down
stairs, rang with exquisite clearness and sweetness on my ear. It was
thus that my faculties strengthened, hour by hour, always in the same
gradual way, from the time when I first heard the footstep and the
whisper outside my chamber-door.
One evening I awoke from a cool, dreamless sleep; and, seeing Clara
sitting by my bedside, faintly uttered her name, and moved my wasted
hand to take hers. As I saw the calm, familiar face bending over me;
the anxious eyes looking tenderly and lovingly into mine--as the last
melancholy glory of sunset hovered on my bed, and the air, sinking
already into its twilight repose, came softly and more softly into the
room--as my sister took me in her arms, and raising me on my weary
pillow, bade me for her sake lie hushed and patient a little
longer--the memory of the ruin and the shame that had overwhelmed me;
the memory of my love that had become an infamy; and of my brief
year's hope miserably fulfilled by a life of despair, swelled darkly
over my heart. The red, retiring rays of sunset just lingered at that
moment on my face. Clara knelt down by my pillow, and held up her
handkerchief to shade my eyes--"God has given you back to us, Basil,"
she whispered, "to make us happier than ever." As she spoke, the
springs of the grief so long pent up within me were loosened; hot
tears dropped heavily and quickly from my eyes; and I wept for the
first time since the night of horror which had stretched me where I
now lay--wept in my sister's arms, at that quiet evening hour, for the
lost honour, the lost hope, the lost happiness that had gone from me
for ever in my youth!
Darkly and wearily the days of my recovery went on. After that first
outburst of sorrow on the evening when I recognised my sister, and
murmured her name as she sat by my side, there sank over all my
faculties a dull, heavy trance of mental pain.
I dare not describe what remembrances of the guilty woman who had
deceived and ruined me, now gnawed unceasingly and poisonously at my
heart. My bodily strength feebly revived; but my mental energies never
showed a sign of recovering with them. My father's considerate
forbearance, Clara's sorrowful reserve in touching on the subject of
my long illness, or of the wild words which had escaped me in my
delirium, mutely and gently warned me that the time was come when I
owed the tardy atonement of confession to the family that I had
disgraced; and still, I had no courage to speak, no resolution to
endure. The great misery of the past, shut out from me the present and
the future alike--every active power of my mind seemed to be destroyed
hopelessly and for ever.
There were moments--most often at the early morning hours, while the
heaviness of the night's sleep still hung over me in my
wakefulness--when I could hardly realise the calamity which had
overwhelmed me; when it seemed that I must have dreamt, during the
night, of scenes of crime and woe and heavy trial which had never
actually taken place. What was the secret of the terrible influence
which--let her even be the vilest of the vile--Mannion must have
possessed over Margaret Sherwin, to induce her to sacrifice me to him?
Even the crime itself was not more hideous and more incredible than
the mystery in which its evil motives, and the manner of its evil
ripening, were still impenetrably veiled.
Mannion! It was a strange result of the mental malady under which I
suffered, that, though the thought of Mannion was now inextricably
connected with every thought of Margaret, I never once asked myself,
or had an idea of asking myself, for days together, after my
convalescence, what had been the issue of our struggle, for him. In
the despair of first awakening to a perfect sense of the calamity
which had been hurled on me from the hand of my wife--in the misery of
first clearly connecting together, after the wanderings of delirium,
the Margaret to whom with my hand I had given all my heart, with the
Margaret who had trampled on the gift and ruined the giver--all minor
thoughts and minor feelings, all motives of revengeful curiosity or of
personal apprehension were suppressed. And yet, the time was soon to
arrive when that lost thought of inquiry into Mannion's fate, was to
become the one master-thought that possessed me--the thought that gave
back its vigilance to my intellect, and its manhood to my heart.
One evening I was sitting alone in my room. My father had taken Clara
out for a little air and exercise, and the servant had gone away at my
own desire. It was in this quiet and solitude, when the darkness was
fast approaching, when the view from my window was at its loneliest,
when my mind was growing listless and confused as the weary day wore
out--it was exactly at this time that the thought suddenly and
mysteriously flashed across me: Had Mannion been taken up from the
stones on which I had hurled him, a living man or a dead?
I instinctively started to my feet with something of the vigour of my
former health; repeating the question to myself; and feeling, as I
unconsciously murmured aloud the few words which expressed it, that my
life had purposes and duties, trials and achievements, which were yet
to be fulfilled. How could I instantly solve the momentous doubt which
had now, for the first time, crossed my mind?
One moment I paused in eager consideration--the next, I descended to
the library. A daily newspaper was kept there, filed for reference. I
might possibly decide the fatal question in a few moments by
consulting it. In my burning anxiety and impatience I could hardly
handle the leaves or see the letters, as I tried to turn back to the
right date--the day (oh anguish of remembrance!) on which I was to
have claimed Margaret Sherwin as my wife!
At last, I found the number I desired; but the closely-printed columns
swam before me as I looked at them. A glass of water stood on a table
near me--I dipped my handkerchief in it, and cooled my throbbing eyes.
The destiny of my future life might be decided by the discovery I was
now about to make!
I locked the door to guard against all intrusion, and then returned to
my task--returned to my momentous search--slowly tracing my way
through the paper, paragraph by paragraph, column by column.
On the last page, and close to the end, I read these lines:
"About one o'clock this morning, a gentleman was discovered lying on
his face in the middle of the road, in Westwood Square, by the
policeman on duty. The unfortunate man was to all appearance dead. He
had fallen on a part of the road which had been recently macadamised;
and his face, we are informed, is frightfully mutilated by contact
with the granite. The policeman conveyed him to the neighbouring
hospital, where it was discovered that he was still alive, and the
promptest attentions were immediately paid him. We understand that the
surgeon in attendance considers it absolutely impossible that he could
have been injured as he was, except by having been violently thrown
down on his face, either by a vehicle driven at a furious rate, or by
a savage attack from some person or persons unknown. In the latter
case, robbery could not have been the motive; for the unfortunate
man's watch, purse, and ring were all found about him. No cards of
address or letters of any kind were discovered in his pockets, and his
linen and handkerchief were only marked with the letter M. He was
dressed in evening costume--entirely in black. After what has been
already said about the injuries to his face, any recognisable personal
description of him is, for the present, unfortunately out of the
question. We wait with much anxiety to gain some further insight into
this mysterious affair, when the sufferer is restored to
consciousness. The last particulars which our reporter was able to
collect at the hospital were, that the surgeon expected to save his
patient's life, and the sight of one of his eyes. The sight of the
other is understood to be entirely destroyed."
With sensations of horror which I could not then, and cannot now
analyse, I turned to the next day's paper; but found in it no further
reference to the object of my search. In the number for the day after,
however, the subject was resumed in these words:
"The mystery of the accident in Westwood Square thickens. The sufferer
is restored to consciousness; he is perfectly competent to hear and
understand what is said to him, and is able to articulate, but not
very plainly, and only for a moment or so, at a time. The authorities
at the hospital anticipated, as we did, that, on the patient's
regaining his senses, some information of the manner in which the
terrible accident from which he is suffering was caused, would be
obtained from him. But, to the astonishment of every one, he
positively refuses to answer any questions as to the circumstances
under which his frightful injuries were inflicted. With the same
unaccountable secrecy, he declines to tell his name, his place of
abode, or the names of any friends to whom notice of his situation
might be communicated. It is quite in vain to press him for any reason
for this extraordinary course of conduct--he appears to be a man of
very unusual firmness of character; and his refusal to explain himself
in any way, is evidently no mere caprice of the moment. All this leads
to the conjecture that the injuries he has sustained were inflicted on
him from some motive of private vengeance; and that certain persons
are concerned in this disgraceful affair, whom he is unwilling to
expose to public odium, for some secret reason which it is impossible
to guess at. We understand that he bears the severe pain consequent
upon his situation, in such a manner as to astonish every person about
him--no agony draws from him a word or a sigh. He displayed no emotion
even when the surgeons informed him that the sight of one of his eyes
was hopelessly destroyed; and merely asked to be supplied with writing
materials as soon as he could see to use them, when he was told that
the sight of the other would be saved. He further added, we are
informed, that he was in a position to reward the hospital authorities
for any trouble he gave, by making a present to the funds of the
charity, as soon as he should be discharged as cured. His coolness in
the midst of sufferings which would deprive most other men of all
power of thinking or speaking, is as remarkable as his unflinching
secrecy--a secrecy which, for the present at least, we cannot hope to
I closed the newspaper. Even then, a vague forewarning of what
Mannion's inexplicable reserve boded towards me, crossed my mind.
There was yet more difficulty, danger, and horror to be faced, than I
had hitherto confronted. The slough of degradation and misery into
which I had fallen, had its worst perils yet in store for me.
As I became impressed by this conviction, the enervating remembrance
of the wickedness to which I had been sacrificed, grew weaker in its
influence over me; the bitter tears that I had shed in secret for so
many days past, dried sternly at their sources; and I felt the power
to endure and to resist coming back to me with my sense of the coming
strife. On leaving the library, I ascended again to my own room. In a
basket, on my table, lay several unopened letters, which had arrived
for me during my illness. There were two which I at once suspected, in
hastily turning over the collection, might be all-important in
enlightening me on the vile subject of Mannion's female accomplice.
The addresses of both these letters were in Mr. Sherwin's handwriting.
The first that I opened was dated nearly a month back, and ran thus:
"North Villa, Hollyoake Square.
"With agonised feelings which no one but a parent, and I will add, an
affectionate parent, can possibly form an idea of, I address you on
the subject of the act of atrocity committed by that perjured villain,
Mannion. You will find that I and my innocent daughter have been, like
you, victims of the most devilish deceit that ever was practised on
respectable and unsuspecting people.
"Let me ask you, Sir, to imagine the state of my feelings on the night
of that most unfortunate party, when I saw my beloved Margaret,
instead of coming home quietly as usual, rush into the room in a state
bordering on distraction, with a tale the most horrible that ever was
addressed to a father's ears. The double-faced villain (I really can't
mention his name again) had, I blush to acknowledge, attempted to take
advantage of her innocence and confidence--all our innocences and
confidences, I may say--but my dear Margaret showed a virtuous courage
beyond her years, the natural result of the pious principles and the
moral bringing up which I have given her from her cradle. Need I say
what was the upshot? Virtue triumphed, as virtue always does, and the
villain left her to herself. It was when she was approaching the
door-step to fly to the bosom of her home that, I am given to
understand, you, by a most remarkable accident, met her. As a man of
the world, you will easily conceive what must have been the feelings
of a young female, under such peculiar and shocking circumstances.
Besides this, your manner, as I am informed, was so terrifying and
extraordinary, and my poor Margaret felt so strongly that deceitful
appearances might be against her, that she lost all heart, and fled at
once, as I said before, to the bosom of her home.
"She is still in a very nervous and unhappy state; she fears that you
may be too ready to believe appearances; but I know better. Her
explanation will be enough for you, as it was for me. We may have our
little differences on minor topics, but we have both the same manly
confidence, I am sure--you in your wife, and me in my daughter.
"I called at your worthy father's mansion, to have a fuller
explanation with you than I can give here, the morning after this
to-all-parties-most-distressing occurrence happened: and was then
informed of your serious illness, for which pray accept my best
condolences. The next thing I thought of doing was to write to your
respected father, requesting a private interview. But on maturer
consideration, I thought it perhaps slightly injudicious to take such
a step, while you, as the principal party concerned, were ill in bed,
and not able to come forward and back me. I was anxious, you will
observe, to act for your interests, as well as the interests of my
darling girl--of course, knowing at the same time that I had the
marriage certificate in my possession, if needed as a proof, and
supposing I was driven to extremities and obliged to take my own
course in the matter. But, as I said before, I have a fatherly and
friendly confidence in your feeling as convinced of the spotless
innocence of my child as I do. So will write no more on this head.
"Having determined, as best under all circumstances, to wait till your
illness was over, I have kept my dear Margaret in strict retirement at
home (which, as she is your wife, you will acknowledge I had no
obligation to do), until you were well enough to come forward and do
her justice before her family and yours. I have not omitted to make
almost daily inquiries after you, up to the time of penning these
lines, and shall continue so to do until your convalescence, which I
sincerely hope may be speedily at hand; I am unfortunately obliged to
ask that our first interview, when you are able to see me and my
daughter, may not take place at North Villa, but at some other place,
any you like to fix on. The fact is, my wife, whose wretched health
has been a trouble and annoyance to us for years past, has now, I
grieve to say, under pressure of this sad misfortune, quite lost her
reason. I am sorry to say that she would be capable of interrupting us
here, in a most undesirable manner to all parties, and therefore
request that our first happy meeting may not take place at my house.
"Trusting that this letter will quite remove all unpleasant feelings
from your mind, and that I shall hear from you soon, on your
"I remain, dear Sir, "Your faithful, obedient servant,
"P. S.--I have not been able to find out where that scoundrel Mannion,
has betaken himself to; but if you should know, or suspect, I wish to
tell you, as a proof that my indignation at his villany is as great as
yours, that I am ready and anxious to pursue him with the utmost
rigour of the law, if law can only reach him--paying out of my own
pocket all expenses of punishing him and breaking him for the rest of
his life, if I go through every court in the country to do it!--S. S."
Hurriedly as I read over this wretched and revolting letter, I
detected immediately how the new plot had been framed to keep me still
deceived; to heap wrong after wrong on me with the same impunity. She
was not aware that I had followed her into the house, and had heard
all from her voice and Mannion's--she believed that I was still
ignorant of everything, until we met at the door-step; and in this
conviction she had forged the miserable lie which her father's hand
had written down. Did he really believe it, or was he writing as her
accomplice? It was not worth while to inquire: the worst and darkest
discovery which it concerned me to make, had already proclaimed
itself--she was a liar and a hypocrite to the very last!
And it was this woman's lightest glance which had once been to me as
the star that my life looked to!---it was for this woman that I had
practised a deceit on my family which it now revolted me to think of;
had braved whatever my father's anger might inflict; had risked
cheerfully the loss of all that birth and fortune could bestow! Why
had I ever risen from my weary bed of sickness?--it would have been
better, far better, that I had died!
But, while life remained, life had its trials and its toils, from
which it was useless to shrink. There was still another letter to be
opened: there was yet more wickedness which I must know how to
The second of Mr. Sherwin's letters was much shorter than the first,
and had apparently been written not more than a day or two back. His
tone was changed; he truckled to me no longer--he began to threaten. I
was reminded that the servant's report pronounced me to have been
convalescent for several days past: and was asked why, under these
circumstances, I had never even written. I was warned that my silence
had been construed greatly to my disadvantage; and that if it
continued longer, the writer would assert his daughter's cause loudly
and publicly, not to my father only, but to all the world. The letter
ended by according to me three days more of grace, before the fullest
disclosure would be made.
For a moment, my indignation got the better of me. I rose, to go that
instant to North Villa and unmask the wretches who still thought to
make their market of me as easily as ever. But the mere momentary
delay caused by opening the door of my room, restored me to myself. I
felt that my first duty, my paramount obligation, was to confess all
to my father immediately; to know and accept my future position in my
own home, before I went out from it to denounce others. I returned to
the table, and gathered up the letters scattered on it. My heart beat
fast, my head felt confused; but I was resolute in my determination to
tell my father, at all hazards, the tale of degradation which I have
told in these pages.
I waited in the stillness and loneliness, until it grew nearly dark.
The servant brought in candles. Why could I not ask him whether my
father and Clara had come home yet? Was I faltering in my resolution
Shortly after this, I heard a step on the stairs and a knock at my
door.--My father? No! Clara. I tried to speak to her unconcernedly,
when she came in.
"Why, you have been walking till it is quite dark, Clara!"
"We have only been in the garden of the Square--neither papa nor I
noticed how late it was. We were talking on a subject of the deepest
interest to us both."
She paused a moment, and looked down; then hurriedly came nearer to
me, and drew a chair to my side. There was a strange expression of
sadness and anxiety in her face, as she continued:
"Can't you imagine what the subject was? It was you, Basil. Papa is
coming here directly, to speak to you."
She stopped once more. Her cheeks reddened a little, and she
mechanically busied herself in arranging some books that lay on the
table. Suddenly, she abandoned this employment; the colour left her
face; it was quite pale when she addressed me again, speaking in very
altered tones; so altered, that I hardly recognised them as hers.
"You know, Basil, that for a long time past, you have kept some secret
from us; and you promised that I should know it first; but I--I have
changed my mind; I have no wish to know it, dear: I would rather we
never said anything about it." (She coloured, and hesitated a little
again, then proceeded quickly and earnestly:) "But I hope you will
tell it all to papa: he is coming here to ask you--oh, Basil! be
candid with him, and tell him everything; let us all be to one another
what we were before this time last year! You have nothing to fear, if
you only speak openly; for I have begged him to be gentle and
forgiving with you, and you know he refuses me nothing. I only came
here to prepare you; to beg you to be candid and patient. Hush! there
is a step on the stairs. Speak out, Basil, for my sake--pray, pray,
speak out, and then leave the rest to me."
She hurriedly left the room. The next minute, my father entered it.
Perhaps my guilty conscience deceived me, but I thought he looked at
me more sadly and severely than I had ever seen him look before. His
voice, too, was troubled when he spoke. This was a change, which meant
much in him.
"I have come to speak to you," he said, "on a subject about which I
had much rather you had spoken to me first."
"I think, Sir, I know to what subject you refer. I--"
"I must beg you will listen to me as patiently as you can," he
rejoined; "I have not much to say."
He paused, and sighed heavily. I thought he looked at me more kindly.
My heart grew very sad; and I yearned to throw my arms round his neck,
to give freedom to the repressed tears which half choked me, to weep
out on his bosom my confession that I was no more worthy to be called
his son. Oh, that I had obeyed the impulse which moved me to do this!
"Basil," pursued my father, gravely and sadly; "I hope and believe
that I have little to reproach myself with in my conduct towards you.
I think I am justified in saying, that very few fathers would have
acted towards a son as I have acted for the last year or more. I may
often have grieved over the secresy which has estranged you from us; I
may even have shown you by my manner that I resented it; but I have
never used my authority to force you into the explanation of your
conduct, which you have been so uniformly unwilling to volunteer. I
rested on that implicit faith in the honour and integrity of my son,
which I will not yet believe to have been ill-placed, but which, I
fear, has led me to neglect too long the duty of inquiry which I owed
to your own well-being, and to my position towards you. I am now here
to atone for this omission; circumstances have left me no choice. It
deeply concerns my interest as a father, and my honour as the head of
our family, to know what heavy misfortune it was (I can imagine it to
be nothing else) that stretched my son senseless in the open street,
and afflicted him afterwards with an illness which threatened his
reason and his life. You are now sufficiently recovered to reveal
this; and I only use my legitimate authority over my own children,
when I tell you that I must now know all. If you persist in remaining
silent, the relations between us must henceforth change for life."
"I am ready to make my confession, Sir. I only ask you to believe
beforehand, that if I have sinned grievously against you, I have been
already heavily punished for the sin. I am afraid it is impossible
that your worst forebodings can have prepared you--"
"The words you spoke in your delirium--words which I heard, but will
not judge you by--justified the worst forebodings."
"My illness has spared me the hardest part of a hard trial, Sir, if it
has prepared you for what I have to confess; if you suspect--"
"I do not _suspect_--I feel but too _sure,_ that you, my second son,
from whom I had expected far better things, have imitated in secret--I
am afraid, outstripped--the worst vices of your elder brother."
"My brother!--my brother's faults mine! Ralph!"
"Yes, Ralph. It is my last hope that you will now imitate Ralph's
candour. Take example from that best part of him, as you have already
taken example from the worst."
My heart grew faint and cold as he spoke. Ralph's example! Ralph's
vices!--vices of the reckless hour, or the idle day!--vices whose
stain, in the world's eye, was not a stain for life!--convenient,
reclaimable vices, that men were mercifully unwilling to associate
with grinning infamy and irreparable disgrace! How far--how fearfully
far, my father was from the remotest suspicion of what had really
happened! I tried to answer his last words, but the apprehension of
the life-long humiliation and grief which my confession might inflict
on him--absolutely incapable, as he appeared to be, of foreboding even
the least degrading part of it--kept me speechless. When he resumed,
after a momentary silence, his tones were stern, his looks
searching--pitilessly searching, and bent full upon my face.
"A person has been calling, named Sherwin," he said, "and inquiring
about you every day. What intimate connection between you authorises
this perfect stranger to me to come to the house as frequently as he
does, and to make his inquiries with a familiarity of tone and manner
which has struck every one of the servants who have, on different
occasions, opened the door to him? Who is this Mr. Sherwin?"
"It is not with him, Sir, that I can well begin. I must go back--"
"You must go back farther, I am afraid, than you will be able to
return. You must go back to the time when you had nothing to conceal
from me, and when you could speak to me with the frankness and
directness of a gentleman."
"Pray be patient with me, Sir; give me a few minutes to collect
myself. I have much need for a little self-possession before I tell
"All? your tones mean more than your words--_they_ are candid, at
least! Have I feared the worst, and yet not feared as I ought?
Basil!--do you hear me, Basil? You are trembling very strangely; you
are growing pale!"
"I shall be better directly, Sir. I am afraid I am not quite so strong
yet as I thought myself. Father! I am heart-broken and spirit-broken:
be patient and kind to me, or I cannot speak to you."
I thought I saw his eyes moisten. He shaded them a moment with his
hand, and sighed again--the same long, trembling sigh that I had heard
before. I tried to rise from my chair, and throw myself on my knees at
his feet. He mistook the action, and caught me by the arm, believing
that I was fainting.
'No more to-night, Basil," he said, hurriedly, but very gently; "no
more on this subject till to-morrow."
"I can speak now, Sir; it is better to speak at once."
"No: you are too much agitated; you are weaker than I thought.
To-morrow, in the morning, when you are stronger after a night's rest.
No! I will hear nothing more. Go to bed now; I will tell your sister
not to disturb you to-night. To-morrow, you shall speak to me; and
speak in your own way, without interruption. Good-night, Basil,
Without waiting to shake hands with me, he hastened to the door, as if
anxious to hide from my observation the grief and apprehension which
had evidently overcome him. But, just at the moment when he was
leaving the room, he hesitated, turned round, looked sorrowfully at me
for an instant, and then, retracing his steps, gave me his hand,
pressed mine for a moment in silence, and left me.
After the morrow was over, would he ever give me that hand again?
The morning which was to decide all between my father and me, the
morning on whose event hung the future of my home life, was the
brightest and loveliest that my eyes ever looked on. A cloudless sky,
a soft air, sunshine so joyous and dazzling that the commonest objects
looked beautiful in its light, seemed to be mocking at me for my heavy
heart, as I stood at my window, and thought of the hard duty to be
fulfilled, on the harder judgment that might be pronounced, before the
dawning of another day.
During the night, I had arranged no plan on which to conduct the
terrible disclosure which I was now bound to make--the greatness of
the emergency deprived me of all power of preparing myself for it. I
thought on my father's character, on the inbred principles of honour
which ruled him with the stern influence of a fanaticism: I thought on
his pride of caste, so unobtrusive, so rarely hinted at in words, and
yet so firmly rooted in his nature, so intricately entwined with every
one of his emotions, his aspirations, his simplest feelings and ideas:
I thought on his almost feminine delicacy in shrinking from the barest
mention of impurities which other men could carelessly discuss, or
could laugh over as good material for an after-dinner jest. I thought
over all this, and when I remembered that it was to such a man that I
must confess the infamous marriage which I had contracted in secret,
all hope from his fatherly affection deserted me; all idea of
appealing to his chivalrous generosity became a delusion in which it
was madness to put a moment's trust.
The faculties of observation are generally sharpened, in proportion as
the faculties of reflection are dulled, under the influence of an
absorbing suspense. While I now waited alone in my room, the most
ordinary sounds and events in the house, which I never remembered
noticing before, absolutely enthralled me. It seemed as if the noise
of a footstep, the echo of a voice, the shutting or opening of doors
down stairs, must, on this momentous day, presage some mysterious
calamity, some strange discovery, some secret project formed against
me, I knew not how, or by whom. Two or three times I found myself
listening intently on the staircase, with what object I could hardly
tell. It was always, however, on those occasions, that a dread,
significant quiet appeared to have fallen suddenly on the house. Clara
never came to me, no message arrived from my father; the door-bell
seemed strangely silent, the servants strangely neglectful of their
duties above stairs. I caught myself returning to my own room softly,
as if I expected that some hidden catastrophe might break forth, if
sound of my footsteps were heard.
Would my father seek me again in my own room, or would he send for me
down stairs? It was not long before the doubt was decided. One of the
servants knocked at my door--the servant whose special duty it had
been to wait on me in my illness. I longed to take the man's hand, and
implore his sympathy and encouragement while he addressed me.
"My master, Sir, desires me to say that, if you feel well enough, he
wishes to see you in his own room."
I rose, and immediately followed the servant. On our way, we passed
the door of Clara's private sitting-room--it opened, and my sister
came out and laid her hand on my arm. She smiled as I looked at her;
but the tears stood thick in her eyes, and her face was deadly pale.
"Think of what I said last night, Basil," she whispered, "and, if hard
words are spoken to you, think of _me._ All that our mother would have
done for you, if she had been still among us, _I_ will do. Remember
that, and keep heart and hope to the very last."
She hastily returned to her room, and I went on down stairs. In the
hall, the servant was waiting for me, with a letter in his hand.
"This was left for you, Sir, a little while ago. The messenger who
brought it said he was not to wait for an answer."
It was no time for reading letters--the interview with my father was
too close at hand. I hastily put the letter into my pocket, barely
noticing, as I did so, that the handwriting on the address was very
irregular, and quite unknown to me.
I went at once into my father's room.
He was sitting at his table, cutting the leaves of some new books that
lay on it. Pointing to a chair placed opposite to him, he briefly
inquired after my health; and then added, in a lower tone--
"Take any time you like, Basil, to compose and collect yourself. This
morning my time is yours."
He turned a little away from me, and went on cutting the leaves of the
books placed before him. Still utterly incapable of preparing myself
in any way for the disclosure expected from me; without thought or
hope, or feeling of any kind, except a vague sense of thankfulness for
the reprieve granted me before I was called on to speak--I
mechanically looked round and round the room, as if I expected to see
the sentence to be pronounced against me, already written on the
walls, or grimly foreshadowed in the faces of the old family portraits
which hung above the fireplace.
What man has ever felt that all his thinking powers were absorbed,
even by the most poignant mental misery that could occupy them? In
moments of imminent danger, the mind can still travel of its own
accord over the past, in spite of the present--in moments of bitter
affliction, it can still recur to every-day trifles, in spite of
ourselves. While I now sat silent in my father's room, long-forgotten
associations of childhood connected with different parts of it, began
to rise on my memory in the strangest and most startling independence
of any influence or control, which my present agitation and suspense
might be supposed to exercise over them. The remembrances that should
have been the last to be awakened at this time of heavy trial, were
the very remembrances which now moved within me.
With burdened heart and aching eyes I looked over the walls around me.
There, in that corner, was the red cloth door which led to the
library. As children, how often Ralph and I had peeped curiously
through that very door, to see what my father was about in his study,
to wonder why he had so many letters to write, and so many books to
read. How frightened we both were, when he discovered us one day, and
reproved us severely! How happy the moment afterwards, when we had
begged him to pardon us, and were sent back to the library again with
a great picture-book to look at, as a token that we were both
forgiven! Then, again, there was the high, old-fashioned, mahogany
press before the window, with the same large illustrated folio about
Jewish antiquities lying on it, which, years and years ago, Clara and
I were sometimes allowed to look at, as a special treat, on Sunday
afternoons; and which we always examined and re-examined with
never-ending delight--standing together on two chairs to reach up to
the thick, yellow-looking leaves, and turn them over with our own
hands. And there, in the recess between two bookcases, still stood the
ancient desk-table, with its rows of little inlaid drawers; and on the
bracket above it the old French clock, which had once belonged to my
mother, and which always chimed the hours so sweetly and merrily. It
was at that table that Ralph and I always bade my father farewell,
when we were going back to school after the holidays, and were
receiving our allowance of pocket-money, given to us out of one of the
tiny inlaid drawers, just before we started. Near that spot, too,
Clara--then a little rosy child--used to wait gravely and anxiously,
with her doll in her arms, to say good-bye for the last time, and to
bid us come back soon, and then never go away again. I turned, and
looked abruptly towards the window; for such memories as the room
suggested were more than I could bear.
Outside, in the dreary strip of garden, the few stunted, dusky trees
were now rustling as pleasantly in the air, as if the breeze that
stirred them came serenely over an open meadow, or swept freshly under
their branches from the rippling surface of a brook. Distant, but yet
well within hearing, the mighty murmur from a large thoroughfare--the
great mid-day voice of London--swelled grandly and joyously on the
ear. While, nearer still, in a street that ran past the side of the
house, the notes of an organ rang out shrill and fast; the instrument
was playing its liveliest waltz tune--a tune which I had danced to in
the ball-room over and over again. What mocking memories within, what
mocking sounds without, to herald and accompany such a confession as I
had now to make!
Minute after minute glided on, inexorably fast; and yet I never broke
silence. My eyes turned anxiously and slowly on my father.
He was still looking away from me, still cutting the leaves of the
books before him. Even in that trifling action, the strong emotions
which he was trying to conceal, were plainly and terribly betrayed.
His hand, usually so steady and careful, trembled perceptibly; and the
paper-knife tore through the leaves faster and faster--cutting them
awry, rending them one from another, so as to spoil the appearance of
every page. I believe he _felt_ that I was looking at him; for he
suddenly discontinued his employment, turned round towards me, and
"I have resolved to give you your own time," he said, "and from that
resolve I have no wish to depart--I only ask you to remember that
every minute of delay adds to the suffering and suspense which I am
enduring on your account." He opened the books before him again,
adding in lower and colder tones, as he did so--"In _your_ place,
Ralph would have spoken before this."
Ralph, and Ralph's example quoted to me again!--I could remain silent
"My brother's faults towards you, and towards his family, are not such
faults as mine, Sir," I began. "I have _not_ imitated his vices; I
have acted as he would _not_ have acted. And yet, the result of my
error will appear far more humiliating, and even disgraceful, in your
eyes, than the results of any errors of Ralph's."
As I pronounced the word "disgraceful," he suddenly looked me full in
the face. His eyes lightened up sternly, and the warning red spot rose
on his pale cheeks.
"What do you mean by 'disgraceful?'" he asked abruptly; "what do you
mean by associating such a word as _disgrace_ with your conduct--with
the conduct of a son of mine?"
"I must reply to your question indirectly, Sir," I continued. "You
asked me last night who the Mr. Sherwin was who has called here so
"And this morning I ask it again. I have other questions to put to
you, besides--you called constantly on a woman's name in your
delirium. But I will repeat last night's question first--who _is_ Mr.
"I don't ask where he lives. Who is he? What is he?"
"Mr. Sherwin is a linen-draper--"
"You owe him money?--you have borrowed money of him? Why did you not
tell me this before? You have degraded my house by letting a man call
at the door--I know it!--in the character of a dun. He has inquired
about you as his 'friend,'--the servants told me of it. This
money-lending tradesman, your _'friend!'_ If I had heard that the
poorest labourer on my land called you 'friend,' I should have held
you honoured by the attachment and gratitude of an honest man. When I
hear that name given to you by a tradesman and money-lender, I hold
you contaminated by connection with a cheat. You were right,
Sir!--this _is_ disgrace; how much do you owe? Where are your
dishonoured acceptances? Where have you used _my_ name and _my_
credit? Tell me at once--I insist on it!"
He spoke rapidly and contemptuously, and rising from his chair as he
ended, walked impatiently up and down the room.
"I owe no money to Mr. Sherwin, Sir--no money to any one."
He stopped suddenly:
"No money to any one?" he repeated very slowly, and in very altered
tones. "You spoke of disgrace just now. There is a worse disgrace then
that you have hidden from me, than debts dishonourably contracted?"
At this moment, a step passed across the hall. He instantly turned
round, and locked the door on that side of the room--then continued:
"Speak! and speak honestly if you can. How have you been deceiving me?
A woman's name escaped you constantly, when your delirium was at its
worst. You used some very strange expressions about her, which it was
impossible altogether to comprehend; but you said enough to show that
her character was one of the most abandoned; that her
licentiousness--it is too revolting to speak of _her_-- I return to
_you._ I insist on knowing how far your vices have compromised you
with that vicious woman."
"She has wronged me--cruelly, horribly, wronged me--" I could say no
more. My head drooped on my breast; my shame overpowered me.
"Who is she? You called her Margaret, in your illness--who is she?"
"She is Mr. Sherwin's daughter--" The words that I would fain have
spoken next, seemed to suffocate me. I was silent again.
I heard him mutter to himself:
_"That_ man's daughter!--a worse bait than the bait of money!"
He bent forward, and looked at me searchingly. A frightful paleness
flew over his face in an instant.
"Basil!" he cried, "in God's name, answer me at once! What is Mr.
Sherwin's daughter to _you?_"
"She is my wife!"
I heard no answer--not a word, not even a sigh. My eyes were blinded
with tears, my face was bent down; I saw nothing at first. When I
raised my head, and dashed away the blinding tears, and looked up, the
blood chilled at my heart.
My father was leaning against one of the bookcases, with his hands
clasped over his breast. His head was drawn back; his white lips
moved, but no sound came from them. Over his upturned face there had
passed a ghastly change, as indescribable in its awfulness as the
change of death.
I ran horror-stricken to his side, and attempted to take his hand. He
started instantly into an erect position, and thrust me from him
furiously, without uttering a word. At that fearful moment, in that
fearful silence, the sounds out of doors penetrated with harrowing
distinctness and merriment into the room. The pleasant rustling of the
trees mingled musically with the softened, monotonous rolling of
carriages in the distant street, while the organ-tune, now changed to
the lively measure of a song, rang out clear and cheerful above both,
and poured into the room as lightly and happily as the very sunshine
For a few minutes we stood apart, and neither of us moved or spoke. I
saw him take out his handkerchief, and pass it over his face,
breathing heavily and thickly, and leaning against the bookcase once
more. When he withdrew the handkerchief and looked at me again, I knew
that the sharp pang of agony had passed away, that the last hard
struggle between his parental affection and his family pride was over,
and that the great gulph which was hence-forth to separate father and
son, had now opened between us for ever.
He pointed peremptorily to me to go back to my former place, but did
not return to his own chair. As I obeyed, I saw him unlock the door of
the bookcase against which he had been leaning, and place his hand on
one of the books inside. Without withdrawing it from its place,
without turning or looking towards me, he asked if I had anything more
to say to him.
The chilling calmness of his tones, the question itself, and the time
at which he put it, the unnatural repression of a single word of
rebuke, of passion, or of sorrow, after such a confession as I had
just made, struck me speechless. He turned a little away from the
bookcase--still keeping his hand on the book inside--and repeated the
question. His eyes, when they met mine, had a pining, weary look, as
if they had been long condemned to rest on woeful and revolting
objects; his expression had lost its natural refinement, its
gentleness of repose, and had assumed a hard, lowering calmness, under
which his whole countenance appeared to have shrunk and changed--years
of old age seemed to have fallen on it, since I had spoken the last
"Have you anything more to say to me?"
On the repetition of that terrible question, I sank down in the chair
at my side, and hid my face in my hands. Unconscious how I spoke, or
why I spoke; with no hope in myself, or in him; with no motive but to
invite and bear the whole penalty of my disgrace, I now disclosed the
miserable story of my marriage, and of all that followed it. I
remember nothing of the words I used---nothing of what I urged in my
own defence. The sense of bewilderment and oppression grew heavier and
heavier on my brain; I spoke more and more rapidly, confusedly,
unconsciously, until I was again silenced and recalled to myself by
the sound of my father's voice. I believe I had arrived at the last,
worst part of my confession, when he interrupted me.
"Spare me any more details," he said, bitterly, "you have humiliated
me sufficiently--you have spoken enough."
He removed the book on which his hand had hitherto rested from the
case behind him, and advanced with it to the table--paused for a
moment, pale and silent--then slowly opened it at the first page, and
resumed his chair.
I recognised the book instantly. It was a biographical history of his
family, from the time of his earliest ancestors down to the date of
the births of his own children. The thick quarto pages were
beautifully illuminated in the manner of the ancient manuscripts; and
the narrative, in written characters, had been produced under his own
inspection. This book had cost him years of research and perseverance.
The births and deaths, the marriages and possessions, the battle
achievements and private feuds of the old Norman barons from whom he
traced his descent, were all enrolled in regular order on every
leaf--headed, sometimes merely by representations of the Knight's
favourite weapon; sometimes by copies of the Baron's effigy on his
tombstone in a foreign land. As the history advanced to later dates,
beautiful miniature portraits were inlaid at the top of each leaf; and
the illuminations were so managed as to symbolize the remarkable
merits or the peculiar tastes of the subject of each biography. Thus,
the page devoted to my mother was surrounded by her favourite violets,
clustering thickest round the last melancholy lines of writing which
told the story of her death.
Slowly and in silence, my father turned over the leaves of the book
which, next to the Bible, I believe he most reverenced in the world,
until he came to the last-written page but one--the page which I knew,
from its position, to be occupied by my name. At the top, a miniature
portrait of me, when a child, was let into the leaf. Under it, was the
record of my birth and names, of the School and College at which I had
been taught, and of the profession that I had adopted. Below, a large
blank space was left for the entry of future particulars. On this page
my father now looked, still not uttering a word, still with the same
ghastly calmness on his face. The organ-notes sounded no more; but the
trees rustled as pleasantly, and the roar of the distant carriages
swelled as joyously as ever on the ear. Some children had come out to
play in the garden of a neighbouring house. As their voices reached
us, so fresh, and clear, and happy--but another modulation of the
thanksgiving song to God which the trees were singing in the summer
air--I saw my father, while he still looked on the page before him,
clasp his trembling hands over my portrait so as to hide it from
Then he spoke; but without looking up, and more as if he were speaking
to himself than to me. His voice, at other times clear and gentle in
its tones, was now so hard and harsh in its forced calmness and
deliberation of utterance, that it sounded like a stranger's.
"I came here, this morning," he began, "prepared to hear of faults and
misfortunes which should pain me to the heart; which I might never,
perhaps, be able to forget, however willing and even predetermined to
forgive. But I did _not_ come prepared to hear, that unutterable
disgrace had been cast on me and mine, by my own child. I have no
words of rebuke or of condemnation for this: the reproach and the
punishment have fallen already where the guilt was--and not there
only. My son's infamy defiles his brother's birthright, and puts his
father to shame. Even his sister's name--"
He stopped, shuddering. When he proceeded, his voice faltered, and his
head drooped low.
"I say it again:--you are below all reproach and all condemnation; but
I have a duty to perform towards my two who are absent, and I have a
last word to say to _you_ when that duty is done. On this page--" (as
he pointed to the family history, his tones strengthened again)--"on
this page there is a blank space left, after the last entry, for
writing the future events of your life. Here, then, if I still
acknowledge you to be my son; if I think your presence and the
presence of my daughter possible in the same house, must be written
such a record of dishonour and degradation as has never yet defiled a
single page of this book--here, the foul stain of your marriage, and
its consequences, must be admitted to spread over all that is pure
before it, and to taint to the last whatever comes after. This shall
not be. I have no faith or hope in you more. I know you now, only as
an enemy to me and to my house--it is mockery and hypocrisy to call
you son; it is an insult to Clara, and even to Ralph, to think of you
as my child. In this record your place is destroyed--and destroyed for
ever. Would to God I could tear the past from my memory, as I tear the
leaf from this book!"
As he spoke, the hour struck; and the old French clock rang out gaily
the same little silvery chime which my mother had so often taken me
into her room to listen to, in the bygone time. The shrill, lively
peal mingled awfully with the sharp, tearing sound, as my father rent
out from the book before him the whole of the leaf which contained my
name; tore it into fragments, and cast them on the floor.
He rose abruptly, after he had closed the book again. His cheeks
flushed once more; and when he next spoke, his voice grew louder and
louder with every word he uttered. It seemed as if he still distrusted
his resolution to abandon me; and sought, in his anger, the strength
of purpose which, in his calmer mood, he might even yet have been
unable to command.
"Now, Sir," he said, "we treat together as strangers. You are Mr.
Sherwin's son--not mine. You are the husband of his daughter--not a
relation of my family. Rise, as I do: we sit together no longer in the
same room. Write!" (he pushed pen, ink, and paper before me,) "write
your terms there--I shall find means to keep you to a written
engagement--the terms of your absence, for life, from this country;
and of hers: the terms of your silence, and of the silence of your
accomplices; of all of them. Write what you please; I am ready to pay
dearly for your absence, your secrecy, and your abandonment of the
name you have degraded. My God! that I should live to bargain for
hushing up the dishonour of my family, and to bargain for it with
I had listened to him hitherto without pleading a word in my own
behalf; but his last speech roused me. Some of _his_ pride stirred in
my heart against the bitterness of his contempt. I raised my head, and
met his eye steadily for the first time--then, thrust the writing
materials away from me, and left my place at the table.
"Stop!" he cried. "Do you pretend that you have not understood me?"
"It is _because_ I have understood you, Sir, that I go. I have
deserved your anger, and have submitted without a murmur to all that
it could inflict. If you see in my conduct towards you no mitigation
of my offence; if you cannot view the shame and wrong inflicted on me,
with such grief as may have some pity mixed with it--I have, I think,
the right to ask that your contempt may be silent, and your last words
to me, not words of insult."
"Insult! After what has happened, is it for _you_ to utter that word
in the tone in which you have just spoken it? I tell you again, I
insist on your written engagement as I would insist on the engagement
of a stranger--I will have it, before you leave this room!"
"All, and more than all, which that degrading engagement could imply,
I will do. But I have not fallen so low yet, as to be bribed to
perform a duty. You may be able to forget that you are my father; I
can never forget that I am your son."
"The remembrance will avail you nothing as long as I live. I tell you
again, I insist on your written engagement, though it were only to
show that I have ceased to believe in your word. Write at once--do you
I neither moved nor answered. His face changed again, and grew livid;
his fingers trembled convulsively, and crumpled the sheet of paper, as
he tried to take it up from the table on which it lay.
"You refuse ?" he said quickly.
"I have already told you, Sir--"
"Go!" he interrupted, pointing passionately to the door, "go out from
this house, never to return to it again--go, not as a stranger to me,
but as an enemy! I have no faith in a single promise you have made:
there is no baseness which I do not believe you will yet be guilty of.
But I tell you, and the wretches with whom you are leagued, to take
warning: I have wealth, power, and position; and there is no use to
which I will not put them against the man or woman who threatens the
fair fame of this family. Leave me, remembering that--and leave me for
Just as he uttered the last word, just as my hand was on the lock of
the door, a faint sound--something between breathing and speaking--was
audible in the direction of the library. He started, and looked round.
Impelled, I know not how, I paused on the point of going out. My eyes
followed his, and fixed on the cloth door which led into the library.
It opened a little--then shut again--then opened wide. Slowly and
noiselessly, Clara came into the room.
The silence and suddenness of her entrance at such a moment; the look
of terror which changed to unnatural vacancy the wonted softness and
gentleness of her eyes, her pale face, her white dress, and slow,
noiseless step, made her first appearance in the room seem almost
supernatural; it was as if an apparition had been walking towards us,
and not Clara herself! As she approached my father, he pronounced her
name in astonishment; but his voice sank to a whisper, while he spoke
it. For an instant, she paused, hesitating--I saw her tremble as her
eyes met his--then, as they turned towards me, the brave girl came on;
and, taking my hand, stood and faced my father, standing by my side.
"Clara!" he exclaimed again, still in the same whispering tones.
I felt her cold hand close fast on mine; the grasp of the chill, frail
fingers was almost painful to me. Her lips moved, but her quick,
hysterical breathing made the few words she uttered inarticulate.
"Clara!" repeated my father, for the third time, his voice rising, but
sinking again immediately--when he spoke his next words, "Clara," he
resumed, sadly and gently, "let go his hand; this is not a time for
your presence, I beg you to leave us. You must not take his hand! He
has ceased to be my son, or your brother. Clara, do you not hear me?"
"Yes, Sir, I hear you," she answered. "God grant that my mother in
heaven may not hear you too!"
He was approaching while she replied; but at her last words, he
stopped instantly, and turned his face away from us. Who shall say
what remembrances of other days shook him to the heart?
"You have spoken, Clara, as you should not have spoken," he went on,
without looking up. "Your mother--" his voice faltered and failed him.
"Can you still hold his hand after what I have said? I tell you again,
he is unworthy to be in your presence; my house is his home no
longer--must I _command_ you to leave him?"
The deeply planted instinct of gentleness and obedience prevailed; she
dropped my hand, but did not move away from me, even yet.
"Now leave us, Clara," he said. "You were wrong, my love, to be in
that room, and wrong to come in here. I will speak to you
up-stairs--you must remain here no longer."
She clasped her trembling fingers together, and sighed heavily.
"I cannot go, Sir," she said quickly and breathlessly.
"Must I tell you for the first time in your life, that you are acting
disobediently?" he asked.
"I cannot go," she repeated in the same manner, "till you have said
you will let him atone for his offence, and will forgive him."
"For _his_ offence there is neither atonement nor forgiveness. Clara!
are you so changed, that you can disobey me to my face?"
He walked away from us as he said this.
"Oh, no! no!" She ran towards him; but stopped halfway, and looked
back at me affrightedly, as I stood near the door. "Basil," she cried,
"you have not done what you promised me; you have not been patient.
Oh, Sir, if I have ever deserved kindness from you, be kind to him for
_my_ sake! Basil! speak, Basil! Ask his pardon on your knees. Father,
I promised him he should be forgiven, if I asked you. Not a word; not
a word from either? Basil! you are not going yet--not going at all!
Remember, Sir, how good and kind he has always been to _me._ My poor
mother, (I _must_ speak of her), my poor mother's favourite son--you
have told me so yourself! and he has always been my favourite brother;
I think because my mother loved him so! His first fault, too! his
first grief! And will you tell him for this, that our home is _his_
home no longer? Punish _me,_ Sir! I have done wrong like him; when I
heard your voices so loud, I listened in the library. He's going! No,
no, no! not yet!"
She ran to the door as I opened it, and pushed it to again.
Overwhelmed by the violence of her agitation, my father had sunk into
a chair while she was speaking.
"Come back--come back with me to his knees!" she whispered, fixing her
wild, tearless eyes on mine, flinging her arms round my neck, and
trying to lead me with her from the door. "Come back, or you will
drive me mad!" she repeated loudly, drawing me away towards my father.
He rose instantly from his chair.
"Clara," he said, "I command you, leave him!" He advanced a few steps
towards me. "Go!" he cried; "if you are human in your villany, you
will release me from this!"
I whispered in her ear, "I will write, love--I will write," and
disengaged her arms from my neck--they were hanging round it weakly,
already! As I passed the door, I turned back, and looked again into
the room for the last time.
Clara was in my father's arms, her head lay on his shoulder, her face
was as still in its heavenly calmness as if the world and the world's
looks knew it no more, and the only light that fell on it now, was
light from the angel's eyes. She had fainted.
He was standing with one arm round her, his disengaged hand was
searching impatiently over the wall behind him for the bell, and his
eyes were fixed in anguish and in love unutterable on the peaceful
face, hushed in its sad repose so close beneath his own. For one
moment, I saw him thus, ere I closed the door--the next, I had left
I never entered it again--I have never seen my father since.
We are seldom able to discover under any ordinary conditions of
self-knowledge, how intimately that spiritual part of us, which is
undying, can attach to itself and its operations the poorest objects
of that external world around us, which is perishable. In the ravelled
skein, the slightest threads are the hardest to follow. In analysing
the associations and sympathies which regulate the play of our
passions, the simplest and homeliest are the last that we detect. It
is only when the shock comes, and the mind recoils before it--when joy
is changed into sorrow, or sorrow into joy--that we really discern
what trifles in the outer world our noblest mental pleasures, or our
severest mental pains, have made part of themselves; atoms which the
whirlpool has drawn into its vortex, as greedily and as surely as the
It was reserved for me to know this, when--after a moment's pause
before the door of my father's house, more homeless, then, than the
poorest wretch who passed me on the pavement, and had wife or kindred
to shelter him in a garret that night--my steps turned, as of old, in
the direction of North Villa.
Again I passed over the scene of my daily pilgrimage, always to the
same shrine, for a whole year; and now, for the first time, I knew
that there was hardly a spot along the entire way, which my heart had
not unconsciously made beautiful and beloved to me by some association
with Margaret Sherwin. Here was the friendly, familiar shop-window,
filled with the glittering trinkets which had so often lured me in to
buy presents for her, on my way to the house. There was the noisy
street corner, void of all adornment in itself, but once bright to me
with the fairy-land architecture of a dream, because I knew that at
that place I had passed over half the distance which separated my home
from hers. Farther on, the Park trees came in sight--trees that no
autumn decay or winter nakedness could make dreary, in the bygone
time; for she and I had walked under them together. And further yet,
was the turning which led from the long, suburban road into Hollyoake
Square--the lonely, dust-whitened place, around which my past
happiness and my wasted hopes had flung their golden illusions, like
jewels hung round the coarse wooden image of a Roman saint.
Dishonoured and ruined, it was among such associations as these--too
homely to have been recognised by me in former times--that I journeyed
along the well-remembered way to North Villa.
I went on without hesitating, without even a thought of turning back.
I had said that the honour of my family should not suffer by the
calamity which had fallen on me; and, while life remained, I was
determined that nothing should prevent me from holding to my word. It
was from this resolution that I drew the faith in myself, the
confidence in my endurance, the sustaining calmness under my father's
sentence of exclusion, which nerved me to go on. I must inevitably see
Mr. Sherwin (perhaps even suffer the humiliation of seeing her!)--must
inevitably speak such words, disclose such truths, as should show him
that deceit was henceforth useless. I must do this and more, I must be
prepared to guard the family to which--though banished from it--I
still belonged, from every conspiracy against them that detected crime
or shameless cupidity could form, whether in the desire of revenge, or
in the hope of gain.. A hard, almost an impossible task--but,
nevertheless, a task that must be done!
I kept the thought of this necessity before my mind unceasingly; not
only as a duty, but as a refuge from another thought, to which I dared
not for a moment turn. The still, pale face which I had seen lying
hushed on my father's breast--CLARA!--That way, lay the grief that
weakens, the yearning and the terror that are near despair; that way
was not it for _me._
The servant was at the garden-gate of North Villa--the same servant
whom I had seen and questioned in the first days of my fatal delusion.
She was receiving a letter from a man, very poorly dressed, who walked
away the moment I approached. Her confusion and surprise were so great
as she let me in, that she could hardly look at, or speak to me. It
was only when I was ascending the door-steps that she said--
"Miss Margaret"--(she still gave her that name!)--"Miss Margaret is
upstairs, Sir. I suppose you would like--"
"I have no wish to see her: I want to speak to Mr. Sherwin."
Looking more bewildered, and even frightened, than before, the girl
hurriedly opened one of the doors in the passage. I saw, as I entered,
that she had shown me, in her confusion, into the wrong room. Mr.
Sherwin, who was in the apartment, hastily drew a screen across the
lower end of it, apparently to hide something from me; which, however,
I had not seen as I came in.
He advanced, holding out his hand; but his restless eyes wandered
unsteadily, looking away from me towards the screen.
"So you have come at last, have you? Just let's step into the
drawing-room: the fact is--I thought I wrote to you about it--?"
He stopped suddenly, and his outstretched arm fell to his side. I had
not said a word. Something in my look and manner must have told him
already on what errand I had come.
"Why don't you speak?" he said, after a moment's pause. "What are you
looking at me like that for? Stop! Let's say our say in the other
room." He walked past me towards the door, and half opened it.
Why was he so anxious to get me away? Who, or what, was he hiding
behind the screen? The servant had said his daughter was upstairs;
remembering this, and suspecting every action or word that came from
him, I determined to remain in the room, and discover his secret. It
was evidently connected with me.
"Now then," he continued, opening the door a little wider, "it's only
across the hall, you know; and I always receive visitors in the best
"I have been admitted here," I replied," and have neither time nor
inclination to follow you from room to room, just as you like. What I
have to say is not much; and, unless you give me fit reasons to the
contrary, I shall say it here."
"You will, will you? Let me tell you that's damned like what we plain
mercantile men call downright incivility. I say it again--incivility;
and rudeness too, if you like it better." He saw I was determined, and
closed the door as he spoke, his face twitching and working violently,
and his quick, evil eyes turned again in the direction of the screen.
"Well," he continued, with a sulky defiance of manner and look, "do as
you like; stop here--you'll wish you hadn't before long, I'll be
bound! You don't seem to hurry yourself much about speaking, so _I_
shall sit down. _You_ can do as you please. Now then! just let's cut
it short--do you come here in a friendly way, to ask me to send for
_my_ girl downstairs, and to show yourself the gentleman, or do you
"You have written me two letters, Mr. Sherwin--"
"Yes: and took devilish good care you should get them--I left them
"In writing those letters, you were either grossly deceived; and, in
that case, are only to be pitied, or--"
"Pitied! what the devil do you mean by that? Nobody wants your pity
"Or you have been trying to deceive me; and in that case, I have to
tell you that deceit is henceforth useless. I know all--more than you
suspect: more, I believe, than you would wish me to have known."
"Oh, that's your tack, is it? By God, I expected as much the moment
you came in! What! you don't believe _my_ girl--don't you? You're
going to fight shy, and behave like a scamp--are you? Damn your
infernal coolness and your aristocratic airs and graces! You shall see
I'll be even with you--you shall. Ha! ha! look here!--here's the
marriage certificate safe in my pocket. You won't do the honourable by
my poor child--won't you? Come out! Come away! You'd better--I'm off
to your father to blow the whole business; I am, as sure as my name's
He struck his fist on the table, and started up, livid with passion.
The screen trembled a little, and a slight rustling noise was audible
behind it, just as he advanced towards me. He stopped instantly, with
an oath, and looked back.
"I warn you to remain here," I said. "This morning, my father has
heard all from my lips. He has renounced me as his son, and I have
left his house for ever."
He turned round quickly, staring at me with a face of mingled fury and
"Then you come to me a beggar!" he burst out; "a beggar who has taken
me in about his fine family, and his fine prospects; a beggar who
can't support my child--Yes! I say it again, a beggar who looks me in
the face, and talks as you do. I don't care a damn about you or your
father! I know my rights; I'm an Englishman, thank God! I know my
rights, and _my_ Margaret's rights; and I'll have them in spite of you
both. Yes! you may stare as angry as you like; staring don't hurt. I'm
an honest man, and _my_ girl's an honest girl!"
I was looking at him, at that moment, with the contempt that I really
felt; his rage produced no other sensation in me. All higher and
quicker emotions seemed to have been dried at their sources by the
events of the morning.
"I say _my_ girl's an honest girl," he repeated, sitting down again;
"and I dare you, or anybody--I don't care who--to prove the contrary.
You told me you knew all, just now. What _all?_ Come! we'll have this
out before we do anything else. She says she's innocent, and I say
she's innocent: and if I could find out that damnation scoundrel
Mannion, and get him here, I'd make him say it too. Now, after all
that, what have you got against her?--against your lawful wife; and
I'll make you own her as such, and keep her as such, I can promise
"I am not here to ask questions, or to answer them," I replied--"my
errand in this house is simply to tell you, that the miserable
falsehoods contained in your letter, will avail you as little as the
foul insolence of language by which you are now endeavouring to
support them. I told you before, and I now tell you again, I know all.
I had been inside that house, before I saw your daughter at the door;
and had heard, from _her_ voice and _his_ voice, what such shame and
misery as you cannot comprehend forbid me to repeat. To your past
duplicity, and to your present violence, I have but one answer to
give:--I will never see your daughter again."
"But you _shall_ see her again--yes! and keep her too! Do you think I
can't see through you and your precious story? Your father's cut you
off with a shilling; and now you want to curry favour with him again
by trumping up a case against _my_ girl, and trying to get her off
your hands that way. But it won't do! You've married her, my fine
gentleman, and you shall stick to her! Do you think I wouldn't sooner
believe her, than believe you? Do you think I'll stand this? Here she
is up-stairs, half heart-broken, on my hands; here's my wife"--(his
voice sank suddenly as he said this)--"with her mind in such a state
that I'm kept away from business, day after day, to look after her;
here's all this crying and misery and mad goings-on in my house,
because you choose to behave like a scamp--and do you think I'll put
up with it quietly? I'll make you do your duty to _my_ girl, if she
goes to the parish to appeal against you! _Your_ story indeed! Who'll
believe that a young female, like Margaret, could have taken to a
fellow like Mannion? and kept it all a secret from you? Who believes
that, I should like to know?"
_"I believe it!"_
The third voice which pronounced those words was Mrs. Sherwin's.
But was the figure that now came out from behind the screen, the same
frail, shrinking figure which had so often moved my pity in the past
time? the same wan figure of sickness and sorrow, ever watching in the
background of the fatal love-scenes at North Villa; ever looking like
the same spectre-shadow, when the evenings darkened in as I sat by
Had the grave given up its dead? I stood awe-struck, neither speaking
nor moving while she walked towards me. She was clothed in the white
garments of the sick-room--they looked on _her_ like the raiment of
the tomb. Her figure, which I only remembered as drooping with
premature infirmity, was now straightened convulsively to its proper
height; her arms hung close at her side, like the arms of a corpse;
the natural paleness of her face had turned to an earthy hue; its
natural expression, so meek, so patient, so melancholy in
uncomplaining sadness, was gone; and, in its stead, was left a pining
stillness that never changed; a weary repose of lifeless waking--the
awful seal of Death stamped ghastly on the living face; the awful look
of Death staring out from the chill, shining eyes.
Her husband kept his place, and spoke to her as she stopped opposite
to me. His tones were altered, but his manner showed as little feeling
"There now!" he began, "you said you were sure he'd come here, and
that you'd never take to your bed, as the Doctor wanted you, till
you'd seen him and spoken to him. Well, he _has_ come; there he is. He
came in while you were asleep, I rather think; and I let him stop, so
that if you woke up and wanted to see him, you might. You can't
say--nobody can say--I haven't given in to your whims and fancies
after that. There! you've had your way, and you've said you believe
him; and now, if I ring for the nurse, you'll go upstairs at last, and
make no more worry about it--Eh?"
She moved her head slowly, and looked at him. As those dying eyes met
his, as that face on which the light of life was darkening fast,
turned on him, even _his_ gross nature felt the shock. I saw him
shrink--his sallow cheeks whitened, he moved his chair away, and said
She looked back to me again, and spoke. Her voice was still the same
soft, low voice as ever. It was fearful to hear how little it had
altered, and then to look on the changed face.
"I am dying," she said to me. "Many nights have passed since that
night when Margaret came home by herself and I felt something moving
down into my heart, when I looked at her, which I knew was death--many
nights, since I have been used to say my prayers, and think I had said
them for the last time, before I dared shut my eyes in the darkness
and the quiet. I have lived on till to-day, very weary of my life ever
since that night when Margaret came in; and yet, I could not die,
because I had an atonement to make to _you,_ and you never came to
hear it and forgive me. I was not fit for God to take me till you
came--I know that, know it to be truth from a dream."
She paused, still looking at me, but with the same deathly blank of
expression. The eye had ceased to speak already; nothing but the voice
"My husband has asked, who will believe you?" she went on; her weak
tones gathering strength with every fresh word she uttered. "I have
answered that _I_ will; for you have spoken the truth. Now, when the
light of this world is fading from my eyes; here, in this earthly home
of much sorrow and suffering, which I must soon quit--in the presence
of my husband--under the same roof with my sinful child--I bear you
witness that you have spoken the truth. I, her mother, say it of her:
Margaret Sherwin is guilty; she is no more worthy to be called your
She pronounced the last words slowly, distinctly, solemnly. Till that
fearful denunciation was spoken, her husband had been looking sullenly
and suspiciously towards us, as we stood together; but while she
uttered it, his eyes fell, and he turned away his head in silence.
He never looked up, never moved, or interrupted her, as she continued,
still addressing me; but now speaking very slowly and painfully,
pausing longer and longer between every sentence.
"From this room I go to my death-bed. The last words I speak in this
world shall be to my husband, and shall change his heart towards you.
I have been weak of purpose," (as she said this, a strange sweetness
and mournfulness began to steal over her tones,) "miserably, guiltily
weak, all my life. Much sorrow and pain and heavy disappointment, when
I was young, did some great harm to me which I have never recovered
since. I have lived always in fear of others, and doubt of myself; and
this has made me guilty of a great sin towards _you._ Forgive me
before I die! I suspected the guilt that was preparing--I foreboded
the shame that was to come--they hid it from others' eyes; but, from
the first, they could not hide it from mine--and yet I never warned
you as I ought! _That_ man had the power of Satan over me! I always
shuddered before him, as I used to shudder at the darkness when I was
a little child! My life has been all fear--fear of _him;_ fear of my
husband, and even of my daughter; fear, worse still, of my own
thoughts, and of what I had discovered that should be told to _you._
When I tried to speak, you were too generous to understand me--I was
afraid to think my suspicions were right, long after they should have
been suspicions no longer. It was misery!--oh, what misery from then
Her voice died away for a moment, in faint, breathless murmurings. She
struggled to recover it, and repeated in a whisper:
"Forgive me before I die! I have made a terrible atonement; I have
borne witness against the innocence of my own child. My own child! I
dare not bid God bless her, if they bring her to my bedside!--forgive
me!--forgive me before I die!"
She took my hand, and pressed it to her cold lips. The tears gushed
into my eyes, as I tried to speak to her.
"No tears for _me!_" she murmured gently. "Basil!--let me call you as
your mother would call you if she was alive--Basil! pray that I may be
forgiven in the dreadful Eternity to which I go, as _you_ have
forgiven me! And, for _her?_--oh! who will pray for _her_ when I am
Those words were the last I heard her pronounce. Exhausted beyond the
power of speaking more, though it were only in a whisper, she tried to
take my hand again, and express by a gesture the irrevocable farewell.
But her strength failed her even for this--failed her with awful
suddenness. Her hand moved halfway towards mine; then stopped, and
trembled for a moment in the air; then fell to her side, with the
fingers distorted and clenched together. She reeled where she stood,
and sank helplessly as I stretched out my arms to support her.
Her husband rose fretfully from his chair, and took her from me. When
his eyes met mine, the look of sullen self-restraint in his
countenance was crossed, in an instant, by an expression of triumphant
malignity. He whispered to me: "If you don't change your tone by
to-morrow!"--paused--and then, without finishing the sentence, moved
away abruptly, and supported his wife to the door.
Just when her face was turned towards where I stood, as he took her
out, I thought I saw the cold, vacant eyes soften as they rested on
me, and change again tenderly to the old look of patience and sadness
which I remembered so well. Was my imagination misleading me? or had
the light of that meek spirit shone out on earth, for the last time at
parting, in token of farewell to mine? She was gone to me, gone for
ever--before I could look nearer, and know.
* * * * *
I was told, afterwards, how she died.
For the rest of that day, and throughout the night, she lay
speechless, but still alive. The next morning, the faint pulse still
fluttered. As the day wore on, the doctors applied fresh stimulants,
and watched her in astonishment; for they had predicted her death as
impending every moment, at least twelve hours before. When they spoke
of this to her husband, his behaviour was noticed as very altered and
unaccountable by every one. He sulkily refused to believe that her
life was in danger; he roughly accused anybody who spoke of her death,
as wanting to fix on him the imputation of having ill-used her, and so
being the cause of her illness; and more than this, he angrily
vindicated himself to every one about her--even to the servants--by
quoting the indulgence he had shown to her fancy for seeing me when I
called, and his patience while she was (as he termed it) wandering in
her mind in trying to talk to me. The doctors, suspecting how his
uneasy conscience was accusing him, forbore in disgust all
expostulation. Except when he was in his daughter's room, he was
shunned by everybody in the house.
Just before noon, on the second day, Mrs. Sherwin rallied a little
under the stimulants administered to her, and asked to see her husband
alone. Both her words and manner gave the lie to his assertion that
her faculties were impaired--it was observed by all her attendants,
that whenever she had strength to speak, her speech never wandered in
the slightest degree. Her husband quitted her room more fretfully
uneasy, more sullenly suspicious of the words and looks of those about
him than ever--went instantly to seek his daughter--and sent her in
alone to her mother's bedside. In a few minutes, she hurriedly came
out again, pale, and violently agitated; and was heard to say, that
she had been spoken to so unnaturally, and so shockingly, that she
could not, and would not, enter that room again until her mother was
better. Better! the father and daughter were both agreed in that; both
agreed that she was not dying, but only out of her mind.
During the afternoon, the doctors ordered that Mrs. Sherwin should not
be allowed to see her husband or her child again, without their
permission. There was little need of taking such a precaution to
preserve the tranquillity of her last moments. As the day began to
decline, she sank again into insensibility: her life was just not
death, and that was all. She lingered on in this quiet way, with her
eyes peacefully closed, and her breathing so gentle as to be quite
inaudible, until late in the evening. Just as it grew quite dark, and
the candle was lit in the sick room, the servant who was helping to
watch by her, drew aside the curtain to look at her mistress; and saw
that, though her eyes were still closed, she was smiling. The girl
turned round, and beckoned to the nurse to come to the bedside. When
they lifted the curtains again to look at her, she was dead.
* * * * *
Let me return to the day of my last visit to North Villa. More remains
to be recorded, before my narrative can advance to the morrow.
After the door had closed, and I knew that I had looked my last on
Mrs. Sherwin in this world, I remained a few minutes alone in the
room, until I had steadied my mind sufficiently to go out again into
the streets. As I walked down the garden-path to the gate, the servant
whom I had seen on my entrance, ran after me, and eagerly entreated
that I would wait one moment and speak to her.
When I stopped and looked at the girl, she burst into tears. "I'm
afraid I've been doing wrong, Sir," she sobbed out, "and at this
dreadful time too, when my poor mistress is dying! If you please, Sir,
I _must_ tell you about it!"
I gave her a little time to compose herself; and then asked what she
had to say.
"I think you must have seen a man leaving a letter with me, Sir," she
continued, "just when you came up to the door, a little while ago?"
"Yes: I saw him."
"It was for Miss Margaret, Sir, that letter; and I was to keep it
secret; and--and--it isn't the first I've taken in for her. It's weeks
and weeks ago, Sir, that the same man came with a letter, and gave me
money to let nobody see it but Miss Margaret--and that time, Sir, he
waited; and she sent me with an answer to give him, in the same secret
way. And now, here's this second letter; I don't know who it comes
from--but I haven't taken it to her yet; I waited to show it to you,
Sir, as you came out, because--"
"Why, Susan?--tell me candidly why?"
"I hope you won't take it amiss, Sir, if I say that having lived in
the family so long as I have, I can't help knowing a little about what
you and Miss Margaret used to be to each other, and that something's
happened wrong between you lately; and so, Sir, it seems to be very
bad and dishonest in me (after first helping you to come together, as
I did), to be giving her strange letters, unknown to you. They may be
bad letters. I'm sure I wouldn't wish to say anything disrespectful,
or that didn't become my place; but--"
"Go on, Susan--speak as freely and as truly to me as ever."
"Well, Sir, Miss Margaret's been very much altered, ever since that
night when she came home alone, and frightened us so. She shuts
herself up in her room, and won't speak to anybody except my master;
she doesn't seem to care about anything that happens; and sometimes
she looks so at me, when I'm waiting on her, that I'm almost afraid to
be in the same room with her. I've never heard her mention your name
once, Sir; and I'm fearful there's something on her mind that there
oughtn't to be. He's a very shabby man that leaves the letters--would
you please to look at this, and say whether you think it's right in me
to take it up-stairs."
She held out a letter. I hesitated before I looked at it.
"Oh, Sir! please, please do take it!" said the girl earnestly. "I did
wrong, I'm afraid, in giving her the first; but I can't do wrong
again, when my poor mistress is dying in the house. I can't keep
secrets, Sir, that may be bad secrets, at such a dreadful time as
this; I couldn't have laid down in my bed to-night, when there's
likely to be death in the house, if I hadn't confessed what I've done;
and my poor mistress has always been so kind and good to us
servants--better than ever we deserved."
Weeping bitterly as she said this, the kind-hearted girl held out the
letter to me once more. This time I took it from her, and looked at
Though I did not know the handwriting, still there was something in
those unsteady characters which seemed familiar to me. Was it possible
that I had ever seen them before? I tried to consider; but my memory
was confused, my mind wearied out, after all that had happened since
the morning. The effort was fruitless: I gave back the letter.
"I know as little about it, Susan, as you do."
"But ought I to take it up-stairs, Sir? only tell me that!"
"It is not for me to say. All interest or share on my part, Susan, in
what she--in what your young mistress receives, is at an end."
"I'm very sorry to hear you say that, Sir; very, very sorry. But what
would you advise me to do?"
"Let me look at the letter once more."
On a second view, the handwriting produced the same effect on me as
before, ending too with just the same result. I returned the letter
"I respect your scruples, Susan, but I am not the person to remove or
to justify them. Why should you not apply in this difficulty to your
"I dare not, Sir; I dare not for my life. He's been worse than ever,
lately; if I said as much to him as I've said to you, I believe he'd
kill me!" She hesitated, then continued more composedly; "Well, at any
rate I've told _you,_ Sir, and that's made my mind easier; and--and
I'll give her the letter this once, and then take in no more--if they
come, unless I hear a proper account of them."
She curtseyed; and, bidding me farewell very sadly and anxiously,
returned to the house with the letter in her hand. If I had guessed at
that moment who it was written by! If I could only have suspected what
were its contents!
I left Hollyoake Square in a direction which led to some fields a
little distance on. It was very strange; but that unknown handwriting
still occupied my thoughts: that wretched trifle absolutely took
possession of my mind, at such a time as this; in such a position as
mine was now.
I stopped wearily in the fields at a lonely spot, away from the
footpath. My eyes ached at the sunlight, and I shaded them with my
hand. Exactly at the same instant, the lost recollection flashed back
on me so vividly that I started almost in terror. The handwriting
shown me by the servant at North Villa, was the same as the
handwriting on that unopened and forgotten letter in my pocket, which
I had received from the servant at home--received in the morning, as I
crossed the hall to enter my father's room.
I took out the letter, opened it with trembling fingers, and looked
through the cramped, closely-written pages for the signature.
It was "ROBERT MANNION."
Mannion! I had never suspected that the note shown to me at North
Villa might have come from him. And yet, the secrecy with which it had
been delivered; the person to whom it was addressed; the mystery
connected with it even in the servant's eyes, all pointed to the
discovery which I had so incomprehensibly failed to make. I had
suffered a letter, which might contain written proof of her guilt, to
be taken, from under my own eyes, to Margaret Sherwin! How had my
perceptions become thus strangely blinded? The confusion of my memory,
the listless incapacity of all my faculties, answered the question but
too readily, of themselves.
"Robert Mannion!" I could not take my eyes from that name: I still
held before me the crowded, closely-written lines of his writing, and
delayed to read them. Something of the horror which the presence of
the man himself would have inspired in me, was produced by the mere
sight of his letter, and that letter addressed to _me._ The vengeance
which my own hands had wreaked on him, he was, of all men the surest
to repay. Perhaps, in these lines, the dark future through which his
way and mine might lie, would be already shadowed forth. Margaret too!
Could he write so much, and not write of _her?_ not disclose the
mystery in which the motives of _her_ crime were still hidden? I
turned back again to the first page, and resolved to read the letter.
It began abruptly, in the following terms:--
"St. Helen's Hospital.
"You may look at the signature when you receive this, and may be
tempted to tear up my letter, and throw it from you unread. I warn you
to read what I have written, and to estimate, if you can, its
importance to yourself. Destroy these pages afterwards if you
like--they will have served their purpose.
"Do you know where I am, and what I suffer? I am one of the patients
of this hospital, hideously mutilated for life by your hand. If I
could have known certainly the day of my dismissal, I should have
waited to tell you with my own lips what I now write--but I am
ignorant of this. At the very point of recovery I have suffered a
"You will silence any uneasy upbraidings of conscience, should you
feel them, by saying that I have deserved death at your hands. I will
tell you, in answer, what you deserve and shall receive at mine.
"But I will first assume that it was knowledge of your wife's guilt
which prompted your attack on me. I am well aware that she has
declared herself innocent, and that her father supports her
declaration. By the time you receive this letter (my injuries oblige
me to allow myself a whole fortnight to write it in), I shall have
taken measures which render further concealment unnecessary.
Therefore, if my confession avail you aught, you have it here:--She is
guilty: _willingly_ guilty, remember, whatever she may say to the
contrary. You may believe this, and believe all I write hereafter.
Deception between us two is at an end.
"I have told you Margaret Sherwin is guilty. Why was she guilty? What
was the secret of my influence over her?
"To make you comprehend what I have now to communicate, it is
necessary for me to speak of myself; and of my early life. To-morrow,
I will undertake this disclosure--to-day, I can neither hold the pen,
nor see the paper any longer. If you could look at my face, where I am
now laid, you would know why!"
"When we met for the first time at North Villa, I had not been five
minutes in your presence before I detected your curiosity to know
something about me, and perceived that you doubted, from the first,
whether I was born and bred for such a situation as I held under Mr.
Sherwin. Failing--as I knew you would fail--to gain any information
about me from my employer or his family, you tried, at various times,
to draw me into familiarity, to get me to talk unreservedly to you;
and only gave up the attempt to penetrate my secret, whatever it might
be, when we parted after our interview at my house on the night of the
storm. On that night, I determined to baulk your curiosity, and yet to
gain your confidence; and I succeeded. You little thought, when you
bade me farewell at my own door, that you had given your hand and your
friendship to a man, who--long before you met with Margaret
Sherwin--had inherited the right to be the enemy of your father, and
of every descendant of your father's house.
"Does this declaration surprise you? Read on, and you will understand
"I am the son of a gentleman. My father's means were miserably
limited, and his family was not an old family, like yours.
Nevertheless, he was a gentleman in anybody's sense of the word; he
knew it, and that knowledge was his ruin. He was a weak, kind,
careless man; a worshipper of conventionalities; and a great respecter
of the wide gaps which lay between social stations in his time. Thus,
he determined to live like a gentleman, by following a gentleman's
pursuit--a profession, as distinguished from a trade. Failing in this,
he failed to follow out his principle, and starve like a gentleman. He
died the death of a felon; leaving me no inheritance but the name of a
"While still a young man, he contrived to be introduced to a gentleman
of great family, great position, and great wealth. He interested, or
fancied he interested, this gentleman; and always looked on him as the
patron who was to make his fortune, by getting him the first
government sinecure (they were plenty enough in those days!) which
might fall vacant. In firm and foolish expectation of this, he lived
far beyond his little professional income--lived among rich people
without the courage to make use of them as a poor man. It was the old
story: debts and liabilities of all kinds pressed heavy on
him--creditors refused to wait--exposure and utter ruin threatened
him--and the prospect of the sinecure was still as far off as ever.
"Nevertheless he believed in the advent of this office; and all the
more resolutely now, because he looked to it as his salvation. He was
quite confident of the interest of his patron, and of its speedy
exertion in his behalf. Perhaps, that gentleman had overrated his own
political influence; perhaps, my father had been too sanguine, and had
misinterpreted polite general promises into special engagements.
However it was, the bailiffs came into his house one morning, while
help from a government situation, or any situation, was as
unattainable as ever--came to take him to prison: to seize everything,
in execution, even to the very bed on which my mother (then seriously
ill) was lying. The whole fabric of false prosperity which he had been
building up to make the world respect him, was menaced with instant
and shameful overthrow. He had not the courage to let it go; so he
took refuge from misfortune in a crime.
"He forged a bond, to prop up his credit for a little time longer. The
name he made use of was the name of his patron. In doing this, he
believed--as all men who commit crime believe--that he had the best
possible chance of escaping consequences. In the first place, he might
get the long-expected situation in time to repay the amount of the
bond before detection. In the second place, he had almost the
certainty of a legacy from a rich relative, old and in ill-health,
whose death might be fairly expected from day to day. If both these
prospects failed (and they _did_ fail), there was still a third
chance--the chance that his rich patron would rather pay the money
than appear against him. In those days they hung for forgery. My
father believed it to be impossible that a man at whose table he had
sat, whose relatives and friends he had amused and instructed by his
talents, would be the man to give evidence which should condemn him to
be hanged on the public scaffold.
"He was wrong. The wealthy patron held strict principles of honour
which made no allowance for temptations and weaknesses; and was
moreover influenced by high-flown notions of his responsibilities as a
legislator (he was a member of Parliament) to the laws of his country.
He appeared accordingly, and gave evidence against the prisoner; who
was found guilty, and left for execution.
"Then, when it was too late, this man of pitiless honour thought
himself at last justified in leaning to the side of mercy, and
employed his utmost interest, in every direction, to obtain a
mitigation of the sentence to transportation for life. The application
failed; even a reprieve of a few days was denied. At the appointed
time, my father died on the scaffold by the hangman's hand.
"Have you suspected, while reading this part of my letter, who the
high-born gentleman was whose evidence hung him? If you have not, I
will tell you. That gentleman was _your father._ You will now wonder
no longer how I could have inherited the right to be his enemy, and
the enemy of all who are of his blood.
"The shock of her husband's horrible death deprived my mother of
reason. She lived a few months after his execution; but never
recovered her faculties. I was their only child; and was left
penniless to begin life as the son of a father who had been hanged,
and of a mother who had died in a public madhouse.
"More of myself to-morrow--my letter will be a long one: I must pause
often over it, as I pause to-day."
"Well: I started in life with the hangman's mark on me--with the
parent's shame for the son's reputation. Wherever I went, whatever
friends I kept, whatever acquaintances I made--people knew how my
father had died: and showed that they knew it. Not so much by shunning
or staring at me (vile as human nature is, there were not many who did
that), as by insulting me with over-acted sympathy, and elaborate
anxiety to sham entire ignorance of my father's fate. The
gallows-brand was on my forehead; but they were too benevolently blind
to see it. The gallows-infamy was my inheritance; but they were too
resolutely generous to discover it! This was hard to bear. However, I
was strong-hearted even then, when my sensations were quick, and my
sympathies young: so I bore it.
"My only weakness was my father's weakness--the notion that I was born
to a station ready made for me, and that the great use of my life was
to live up to it. My station! I battled for that with the world for
years and years, before I discovered that the highest of all stations
is the station a man makes for himself: and the lowest, the station
that is made for him by others.
"At starting in life, your father wrote to make me offers of
assistance--assistance, after he had ruined me! Assistance to the
child, from hands which had tied the rope round the parent's neck! I
sent him back his letter. He knew that I was his enemy, his son's
enemy, and his son's son's enemy, as long as I lived. I never heard
from him again.
"Trusting boldly to myself to carve out my own way, and to live down
my undeserved ignominy; resolving in the pride of my integrity to
combat openly and fairly with misfortune, I shrank, at first, from
disowning my parentage and abandoning my father's name. Standing on my
own character, confiding in my intellect and my perseverance, I tried
pursuit after pursuit, and was beaten afresh at every new effort.
Whichever way I turned, the gallows still rose as the same immovable
obstacle between me and fortune, between me and station, between me
and my fellowmen. I was morbidly sensitive on this point. The
slightest references to my father's fate, however remote or
accidental, curdled my blood. I saw open insult, or humiliating
compassion, or forced forbearance, in the look and manner of every man
about me. So I broke off with old friends, and tried new; and, in
seeking fresh pursuits, sought fresh connections, where my father's
infamy might be unknown. Wherever I went, the old stain always broke
out afresh, just at the moment when I had deceived myself into the
belief that it was utterly effaced. I had a warm heart then--it was
some time before it turned to stone, and felt nothing. Those were the
days when failure and humiliation could still draw tears from me: that
epoch in my life is marked in my memory as the epoch when I could
"At last, I gave way before difficulty, and conceded the first step to
the calamity which had stood front to front with me so long. I left
the neighbourhood where I was known, and assumed the name of a
schoolfellow who had died. For some time this succeeded; but the curse
of my father's death followed me, though I saw it not. After various
employments--still, mind, the employments of a gentleman!--had first
supported, then failed me, I became an usher at a school. It was there
that my false name was detected, and my identity discovered again--I
never knew through whom. The exposure was effected by some enemy,
anonymously. For several days, I thought everybody in the school
treated me in an altered way. The cause came out, first in whispers,
then in reckless jests, while I was taking care of the boys in the
playground. In the fury of the moment I struck one of the most
insolent, and the eldest of them, and hurt him rather seriously. The
parents heard of it, and threatened me with prosecution; the whole
neighbourhood was aroused. I had to leave my situation secretly, by
night, or the mob would have pelted the felon's son out of the parish.
"I went back to London, bearing another assumed name; and tried, as a
last resource to save me from starvation, the resource of writing. I
served my apprenticeship to literature as a hack-author of the lowest
degree. Knowing I had talents which might be turned to account, I
tried to vindicate them by writing an original work. But my experience
of the world had made me unfit to dress my thoughts in popular
costume: I could only tell bitter truths bitterly; I exposed licenced
hypocrisies too openly; I saw the vicious side of many
respectabilities, and said I saw it--in short, I called things by
their right names; and no publisher would treat with me. So I stuck to
my low task-work; my penny-a lining in third-class newspapers; my
translating from Frenchmen and Germans, and plagiarising from dead
authors, to supply the raw material for bookmongering by more
accomplished bookmongers than I. In this life, there was one advantage
which compensated for much misery and meanness, and bitter, biting
disappointment: I could keep my identity securely concealed. Character
was of no consequence to me; nobody cared to know who I was, or to
inquire what I had been--the gallows-mark was smoothed out at last!
"While I was living thus on the offal of literature, I met with a
woman of good birth, and fair fortune, whose sympathies or whose
curiosity I happened to interest. She and her father and mother
received me favourably, as a gentleman who had known better days, and
an author whom the public had undeservedly neglected. How I managed to
gain their confidence and esteem, without alluding to my parentage, it
is not worth while to stop to describe. That I did so you will easily
imagine, when I tell you that the woman to whom I refer, consented,
with her father's full approval, to become my wife.
"The very day of the marriage was fixed. I believed I had successfully
parried all perilous inquiries--but I was wrong. A relation of the
family, whom I had never seen, came to town a short time before the
wedding. We disliked each other on our first introduction. He was a
clever, resolute man of the world, and privately inquired about me to
much better purpose in a few days, than his family had done in several
months. Accident favoured him strangely, everything was
discovered--literally everything--and I was contemptuously dismissed
the house. Could a lady of respectability marry a man (no matter how
worthy in _her_ eyes) whose father had been hanged, whose mother had
died in a madhouse, who had lived under assumed names, who had been
driven from an excellent country neighbourhood, for cruelty to a
harmless school-boy? Impossible!
"With this event, my long strife and struggle with the world ended.
"My eyes opened to a new view of life, and the purpose of life. My
first aspirations to live up to my birth-right position, in spite of
adversity and dishonour, to make my name sweet enough in men's
nostrils, to cleanse away the infamy on my father's, were now no more.
The ambition which--whether I was a hack-author, a travelling
portrait-painter, or an usher at a school--had once whispered to me:
low down as you are in dark, miry ways, you are on the path which
leads upward to high places in the sunshine afar-off; you are not
working to scrape together wealth for another man; you are
independent, self-reliant, labouring in your own cause--the daring
ambition which had once counselled thus, sank dead within me at last.
The strong, stern spirit was beaten by spirits stronger and sterner
yet--Infamy and Want.
"I wrote to a man of character and wealth; one of my friends of early
days, who had ceased to hold communication with me, like other
friends, but, unlike them, had given me up in genuine sorrow: I wrote,
and asked him to meet me privately by night. I was too ragged to go to
his house, too sensitive still (even if I had gone and had been
admitted) to risk encountering people there, who either knew my
father, or knew how he had died. I wished to speak to my former
friend, unseen, and made the appointment accordingly. He kept it.
"When we met, I said to him:--I have a last favour to ask of you. When
we parted years ago, I had high hopes and brave resolutions--both are
worn out. I then believed that I could not only rise superior to my
misfortune, but could make that very misfortune the motive of my rise.
You told me I was too quick of temper, too morbidly sensitive about
the slightest reference to my father's death, too fierce and
changeable under undeserved trial and disappointment. This might have
been true then; but I am altered now: pride and ambition have been
persecuted and starved out of me. An obscure, monotonous life, in
which thought and spirit may be laid asleep, never to wake again, is
the only life I care for. Help me to lead it. I ask you, first, as a